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8 Things You May Not Know About the Praetorian Guard

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Equal parts secret service, special forces and urban administrators, Rome’s Praetorian Guard was one of the ancient world’s most prestigious military units. These handpicked soldiers are most famous for serving as the sworn bodyguard of the Roman ruler, but they were also used as a Jack-of-all-trades force in the service of the Empire. Guardsmen fought alongside the legions on campaign, put down uprisings, pacified rioters and served as security at gladiator shows and chariot races. As their influence grew, they also played a pivotal role in the intrigue and double-crossing that blighted imperial Rome. Explore eight facts about the men-at-arms who protected—and sometimes murdered—the Roman emperor.

 

 

More interesting tidbits on the History Channel website.

 

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Who is your favourite prefect?

Burrus was probably the only sensible one of the lot.

Tigellinus had style.

And most of them were tricksy buggers.

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Equal parts secret service, special forces and urban administrators

AAARGH!!!!!

 

No.

 

The Praetorian Guard was a military class composed of amalgamated bodyguard units from the civil wars. They had no official intelligence or administration role. As special forces, they were no more effective than any other Roman military formation and not specifically trained in special duties. It is true that they were also conventiently placed to act as intelligence gatherers, but then so were the hordes of slaves in Rome, it was simply a matter of reporting what had been heard (for favours and career progression of course).

 

In fact the Praetorians were well aware of their special status and service in the Praetorians was regarded as a profitable perk.

 

 

 

 

 

Rome’s Praetorian Guard was one of the ancient world’s most prestigious military units.

Sort of, although it must be said that Praetorians probably did a lot less soldiering than other legionaries - one of their perks of course, and that the Praetorians were not as well regarded as you appear to believe. remember that in one instance drunken Praetorians killed the Emperor Pertinax and auctioned off the throne to the highest bidder. Although it was usually the Praetorian Prefect who was involved in political plots rather than the Guard as a whole, it was nonetheless a dangerous faction and had been ever since Aelius Sejanus had them barracked together in Rome during the reign of Tiberius.

 

 

 

These handpicked soldiers are most famous for serving as the sworn bodyguard of the Roman ruler, but they were also used as a Jack-of-all-trades force in the service of the Empire.

Sadly, nope. No more than any other soldier was and probably less likely than frontier soldiers.

 

 

 

Guardsmen fought alongside the legions on campaign, put down uprisings, pacified rioters and served as security at gladiator shows and chariot races.

They served in a few campaigns to protect a Caesar campaigning in person, which ordinarily did not happen. They probably took part in as many uprisings as they put down. Their main role was to provide security to the imperial dynasty and places where they did business - security at munera and circuses was not a standard function - they would only be tghere to apply security when the Caesar was at the show. Most spectaculars employed officials to deal with troublemakers but then again, there wasn't much security available anyway.

 

 

 

As their influence grew, they also played a pivotal role in the intrigue and double-crossing that blighted imperial Rome. Explore eight facts about the men-at-arms who protected—and sometimes murdered—the Roman emperor.

Their influence was no different to other legiosn in terms of political awareness and connivance. However, the commander of the Guard was of course well placed to align himself with a faction and certainly this was common enough - Severus had the entire Guard replaced when he mounted his coup.

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Hey Caldrail, interesting input from your part but I'm wondering if you actually read the whole article? It expands a bit on the first paragraph I posted.

 

Regarding the different roles played by the Praetorian Guard, it tended to vary through the centuries. Some Emperors expanded their powers, others restricted them, and so it went until Constantine finally disbanded them.

 

The Praetorian Guard was a military class composed of amalgamated bodyguard units from the civil wars. They had no official intelligence or administration role.

 

That's not entirely true. The Praetorian Prefects were the commanders of the Praetorian Guard but would also eventually have an administrative role.

 

From UNRV:

 

At the onset, Augustus recruited 9 cohorts of about 500 men each, essentially equal to the size of an imperial legion. Each cohort was eventually swelled to equal that of the double-strength first cohort of an Imperial Legion, so that each cohort, from this time on, was generally made up of 1,000 men. Three of these initial 9 units were stationed in Rome while the other six were garrisoned throughout Italy. At first each cohort was under the command of an Equestrian rank Tribune, but by the turn of the millennium, Augustus had created the overall command position of the Praetorian Praefectus. The Prefects eventually became incredibly powerful political players themselves, and in some cases wielded more direct control and power over the empire than the Emperor. Set up as an institution with supreme loyalty to the emperor, they eventually became a formidable political force, in many cases, both eliminating the current Emperor and dictating ascension to the throne.

 

Encyclopaedia Brittanica:

 

The praetorian prefect, being responsible for the emperor’s safety, rapidly acquired great power. Many became virtual prime ministers to the emperor, Sejanus being the prime example of this. Two others, Macrinus and Philip the Arabian, seized the throne for themselves.
By ad 300 the praetorian prefects virtually directed the civil administration of the empire. They executed judicial powers as delegates of the emperor, organized tax levies, and supervised provincial governors. They also commanded troops and served as quartermasters general to the emperor’s court.
 
As for intelligence gathering, a group within the Praetorian Guard known as Speculatores, sort of played the role of "secret agents". There's an interesting book entitled "The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome's Elite Special Forces" by Sandra Bingham, which describes the Speculatores as "employed in matters that involved issues of national security or where there was a need for covert activity".
 

These handpicked soldiers are most famous for serving as the sworn bodyguard of the Roman ruler, but they were also used as a Jack-of-all-trades force in the service of the Empire.

 

Sadly, nope. No more than any other soldier was and probably less likely than frontier soldiers.

 

Initially recruited as bodyguards, they came to perform additional duties:
 
- Bodyguard of the Emperor
- The palace guard
- As the only military force allowed in the city of Rome
- Policing Rome
- To quell any riots in the city
- As intelligence units
- Guarding prisoners awaiting trial before the Emperor
- Interrogations
 
Not to mention administrators already mentioned above.
 
Guardsmen fought alongside the legions on campaign, put down uprisings, pacified rioters and served as security at gladiator shows and chariot races.

 

 

They served in a few campaigns to protect a Caesar campaigning in person, which ordinarily did not happen.

 

 

Maybe not at first, but contrary to popular belief, the Praetorians, especially beyond the Julio-Claudian era, often went on campaign with the Emperor.
 
More on UNRV
 
Enemy incursions into Italy or nearby provinces were also often met by Praetorian defenders. As the deep interior of the Empire was bereft of troops in comparison to the frontier provinces, it could often fall upon the imperial guard to secure the interior empire. They also accompanied those emperors who functioned as generals while on campaign. Of notable example are Trajan in Dacia and Marcus Aurelius while he conducted the war on the Danube, and the Praetorians certainly were involved in heavy action.

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Okay here's a question for those of you who know your roman army (I don't in any detail).

Given the extremely important role of the praetorian prefect and his influence over the emperor, would you say there is greater social mobility in the guard than the regular army?

Sejanus was from a non distinguished equestrian family,

Tigellinus was a former horse breeder.

Nymphidius Sabinus was the grandson of an imperial slave

And so forth

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Given the extremely important role of the praetorian prefect and his influence over the emperor, would you say there is greater social mobility in the guard than the regular army?

The regular legions you mean? The Romans did not have a single national army. But yes, you're right, although it was beneficial for officer ranks rather more than the men themselves.

 

That's not entirely true. The Praetorian Prefects were the commanders of the Praetorian Guard but would also eventually have an administrative role.

The admibnistrative role was no more than any regular legion, and only performed on a case by case basis, nor was it entirely common. There were Praetorian Prefects who by virtue of their relationships with senators and caesars were given more influebnce or duties than ordinarily expected, but that was always the way of things in the Roman empire - it did not imply any official role.

 

As for intelligence gathering, a group within the Praetorian Guard known as Speculatores, sort of played the role of "secret agents".

Any Roman soldier of any kind of unit sent to spy was classed as speculatores. It was a temporary designation and in no way infers a man was a 'secret agent'. None of them were a unit or class apart.

 

- Bodyguard of the Emperor
- The palace guard
- As the only military force allowed in the city of Rome
- Policing Rome
- To quell any riots in the city
- As intelligence units
- Guarding prisoners awaiting trial before the Emperor
- Interrogations


The first two are correct.

Comfortable and relatively safe in their barracks in Rome, enjoying shorter service and better pay and bonuses than any other unit in the empire, and often involved in nothing more arduous than sentry duty at the palace, the Praetorians were the envy of legionaries stationed at the frontiers.... Whilst in Rome their principal duty was to mount guard at Augustus's home on the Palatine.... Other duties included escorting the emperor and other members of the imperial family, and if necessary, acting as a sort of riot police....
The Praetorian Guard  (Dr Boris Rankov)

Rome had no police force. Some of the praetorian cohorts had been seperated and formed the Urban Cohorts, of which three were designated by Augustus in ad12, whose duties were closer to those of a police force, but even they were not so fully engaged unless necessary.

There were no specialist intelligence units in Roman times. None. Period. Any man could see with his own eyes and the Romans were customarily prone to gossip and information passing as a rule.

Prisoners might be held by anyone so ordered. Praetorians were not specialist gaolers, and for that matter, no were they specialist interrogators. A man being questioned, particularly with a heavy hand, might just as easily be beaten by slaves.

The quelling of riots was not a praetorian duty as such. Riots occurred frequently in Rome and generally blew over before anyone had the gumption to do anything. The more serious riot was perhaps another matter, but only when the safety of the dynasty was at stake would the guard be ordered to act, unless of course there was a political motive for the Prefect to show intitiative - but please do realise that Rome had a ruling against the bearing of arms by soldiers in the city, and to send troops in to quell riots not only broke that rule, it also showed that the Caesar needed soldiers to be taken seriously as a politican with brute force - the mark of a weak man and a tyrant.

 

Maybe not at first, but contrary to popular belief, the Praetorians, especially beyond the Julio-Claudian era, often went on campaign with the Emperor.

The were not however a regular legion. There's no dispute that pratrians did at times march on campaign, but please realise that a primary reason for seeking service as a Praetorian was that they did less than ordinary legionaries.

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Rome had no police force. Some of the praetorian cohorts had been seperated and formed the Urban Cohorts, of which three were designated by Augustus in ad12, whose duties were closer to those of a police force, but even they were not so fully engaged unless necessary.
There were no specialist intelligence units in Roman times. None. Period. Any man could see with his own eyes and the Romans were customarily prone to gossip and information passing as a rule.
Prisoners might be held by anyone so ordered. Praetorians were not specialist gaolers, and for that matter, no were they specialist interrogators. A man being questioned, particularly with a heavy hand, might just as easily be beaten by slaves.

 

The Praetorian Guard has been used for different purposes through the centuries, and that is the point of the article. Nobody said they were created for the purpose of serving exclusively as a police force, or intelligence units, or prison guards. These were probably temporary / ad hoc duties, but duties nevertheless. And I'm not disputing the fact that soldiers from the regular legions were also used in such activities when necessary. That was not my point.

 

The were not however a regular legion. There's no dispute that pratrians did at times march on campaign, but please realise that a primary reason for seeking service as a Praetorian was that they did less than ordinary legionaries. 

 

Once again, I never said they were a regular legion but that it was not uncommon for them to go on campaign with the Emperor, in reply to your statement that

 

They served in a few campaigns to protect a Caesar campaigning in person, which ordinarily did not happen

 

 

 

Peace.

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But you need the social mobility to get close to the emperor to reap the benefits.

I suppose Nymphidius Sabinus as callistus' grandson would have been part of the imperial court prior to his appointment as prefect.

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For your perusal I've collated the significant actions of the Praetorians. There may be a line or two missing, especially the less well documented third century. So then... Enjoy...

 

c.47BC - Octavian and Marc Antony divide 8000 troops between them as Praetorian Cohorts.

32BC - Octavian issues a coin in honour of his Praetorians.

31BC - 5 cohorts of Praetorians fight with Octavian at the Battle of Actium.

30BC - Octavian disbands his Spanish Calgurritani bodyguards after Marc Antony is defeated. The Praetorian Guard is founded with 9 cohorts in a symbolic reunification of Julius Caesar's army. Only 3 cohorts are stationed in Rome, the rest dispersed around Italy.

13BC - Length of service for Praetorians set at 12 years.

5BC - Length of service for Praetorians set at 16 years.

2BC - The Praetorian cohorts had been individually led, but Augustus now creates two posts of Praetorian Prefect to be assigned to eligible Equites.

9 - Augustus disbands his German Guard.

12.- Augustus may have raised the number of Praetorian cohorts to 12. He redesignated the last three bodyguard units as Urban Cohorts

14 - Praetorian units and German Guards put down a revolt in Pannonia.

23 - Sejanus concentrates the Guard into a single barrracks in Rome

37/54 - At some point the number of Praetorian cohorts increases to 12.

39 - Caligula leads a Praetorian march in triumph across a temporary bridge of boats in the Bay of Naples. He also took some Praetorian cavalry on a staged skirmish across the Rhine that aroused deriision.

41 - Caligula murdered - Praetorian officers took part in the conspiracy and later set Claudius upon the throne against the desires of the Senate. The German Guard ran riot.

43 - Praetorians follow Claudius to Britain to take surrender of the southern British tribes.

65 - Praetorian officers implicated in the Pisonian Conspiracy against Nero.

68 - Praetorians abandon Nero and sign up with Galba. Galba fails to pay the bribe offered.

69 - Otho bribes Praetorian speculatores to pronounce him Caesar and persuades the rest of the Guard to support him. Galba is killed. The Praetorians defend Otho and are defeated in their first major battle at Cremona. Vitellius disbands the Guard and creates 16 new cohorts. The disbanded old Guard sign up with Vespasian. At the second Battle of Cremona the old Guard defeat the new Guard and Vespasian becomes Caesar. The new Guard and Vespasian's troops form a Praetorian Guard of 9 cohorts.

81/96 - Domitian raised the number to 10 and they stayed at that strength.

80's - Praetorians involved in heavy fighting in Germania and Dacia.

101/102 - Praetorians on campaign in Trajan's First Dacian War.

105/106 - Praetorians on campaign in Trajan's Second Dacian War.

130 - Praetorians follow Hadrian to the Eastern Provinces.

162/166 - Praetorian Guards march with Lucius Verus in the east.

169/175 - Praetorian Guards march with Marcus Aurelius in the north.

178/180 - Praetorian Guards march with Marcus Aurelius in the north.

189 - Cleander orders the Praetorians to slaughter rioters in Rome, and Praetorian cavalry end up fighting Urban Cohorts.

192 - Praetorian officers involved in the plot to kill Commodus.

193 - Pertinax killed by rioting Praetorians. Guard attempt to sell the empire and are replaced by Severus's own men.

197 - Praetorians campaign in Gaul for Septimius Severus

202 - Praetorians campaign in the east for Septimius Severus

208/211 - Praetorians follow Severus Septimius Severus to Britain.

222 - Praetorians get rid of Elagabalus and help install Severus Alexander. The Guard are effectively out of control.

238 - The Praetorian barracks is besieged by angry citizens in Rome. Maximius is killed by his own troops, including Praetorians, for failing to deal with the pretender Gordian.

270/275 - Praetorians on campaign with Aurelius against Palmyra.

297 - Praetorians follow Maximian to Africa.

284/305  - Diocletian may have reduced the size of Praetorian Guard.

305 - Praetorians install Maxentius as Caesar.

311 - Praetorians help defeat the forces of the usurper  Domitius Alexander.

312 - Praetorians on the losing side at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (the bridge collapses under them as they retreat fighting). Constantine permanently disbands the Praetorian Guard and demolishes the inner wall of the barracks in Rome, but the office of Praetorian Prefect survives as an administrative post.
 

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and in the Sandra Bullock movie 'The Net' (1995)  the Praetorians are the bad guys,  really bad guys.

 

LOL, that's right. They are not exactly angels in the "Gladiator" movie either - really naughty buggers, those Praetorians.  :hammer:

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That film was more or less a remake of a film starring Christopher Plummer and Alec Guiness. (Can't remember the title - something like  'Fall Of the Roman Empire'), so there was little new about it either (apart from lots of special effects that if I were honest did the job quite well)

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I love Gladiator, and just watch it for what it is: great entertainment (and Russel Crowe is not too bad to look at either - an added bonus)!  :P

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